Bruce Springsteen: Falling Out of Favor?

Classic rock is not only for boomers. Rock fans run the gamete of styles and ages; they may be associated with the Woodstock generation, but rock fans are as diverse as your coffee drink selections, craft beers or marijuana brands.

Bruce Springsteen is not of the Woodstock era, but he cut his teeth as a young musician about the same time. His heyday really started in 1975 with the release of Born to Run. “The Boss” appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines as the new voice of rock. Millions of albums and concert tickets later, Springsteen is now more likely to appear on the AARP magazine.

A funny thing happened along the thunder road, Springsteen is still cool to many, but even some of his large audience has turned against him. Today, it’s easy to find critics, less of his music, and more about his views.

Why the criticism of the boss? Pick a subject and America is divided on it. One reason for the heat is that he teamed up with Barack Obama on a podcast series and seems to share some ideology with the former President. Here we go: Damn liberal, socialist, whiny millionaire rocker who is out of touch with people who want freedom and political correctness.

Interesting criticism because Springsteen has been a favorite of working class America, from his humble blue collar origins, to his working class musical work ethic and his peeling back the manufactured gloss of the American Dream. Springsteen’s music spoke of the rich cultural spirit of those who built America from the ground up, who went to war to defend this Technicolor vision and frequently struggled in the wake of dreams that failed to materialize. Springsteen has supported small town America, the working man and Veterans. He has also defended the environment, Amnesty International and rights of the LGBT community – which has increasingly put him at odds with more conservative voices.

On the subject of the power of music, “…directly aimed at socially, politically conscious people and are important in the same way hymns are important in church. It makes us stronger in our beliefs. And in a certain moment, the right song can start a fire,” Springsteen said. More on the church analogy coming up.

America had started facing energy issues in the 1970s with the disruption of foreign oil supplies, offshore oil drilling pushback, pollution and the dangers of nuclear energy. Springsteen was still riding a crest of huge popularity in the late 1970s.

No Nukes was a 1979 series of concerts, a concert film and album by Musicians United For Safe Energy (MUSE), which included Springsteen, to raise funds and awareness of the danger of nuclear energy. The concerts followed the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Facility.

Springsteen’s recording output slowed temporarily in the early 1980s as he focused on touring and other pursuits. Nebraska, was a stripped-down folk album with very dark themes. Born in the USA would eventually sell 30 million copies and keep him on the road for extended tours. Tunnel of Love was a solo album, a deeply personal one. It would be five years before he reappeared with two albums of original material. Springsteen’s core audience was still in tow, but his mass popularity was not what it once was. Times were changing, and so was the boss.

Springsteen released “Streets of Philadelphia,” the title song to Philadelphia (1993), which became the first Hollywood film dedicated to the AIDS epidemic, and his song as awarded an Academy Award. Thirty years ago, AIDS was still a divisive disease, many still linked it to an unsavory lifestyle. Ryan White developed AIDS after a blood transfusion as a child and did not live to see his 20th birthday. Matthew Shepard was a gay college student in Wyoming who was tortured and left to die. Understanding and tolerance are still a work-in-progress in America.

In 2000, Springsteen began performing “American Skin (41 Shots)”, commemorating the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot 41 times by New York City police for mistaken identity. Springsteen received a lot of pushback by people who felt criticism of law enforcement was out of line.

“Like many of you who live in New Jersey, I’ve been following the progress of the marriage-equality legislation currently being considered in Trenton,” Springsteen wrote on his web page. “I’ve long believed in and have always spoken out for the rights of same sex couples…” 2009 statement by Springsteen in support of New Jersey legislation.

Same sex marriage is a hot-button issue. Did Springsteen realize the cost when he spoke out, using his fame to comment on a divisive issue? If he didn’t initially, he soon would.

A sampling from Facebook on a post about Springsteen on a fairly benign music page. Classy stuff.

“I would have no business in politics. I’m just not interested in policy-making enough. I know people in entertainment who are interested in those things, but I’m a musician.” Springsteen, Variety, 2017

Everyone is involved in politics to a degree, even Springsteen; but how deep, and what’s his messaging? In that same Variety interview, he voiced that he writes about things he obsesses about, things he hopes his audience cares about. Well, some do and some don’t. Springsteen has more than one audience, he also has those that separate his music from his politics.

“People want you to go deeper than politics, they want you to reach inside to their most personal selves and their deepest struggles with their daily lives and reach that place; that’s the place I’m always trying to reach. I’d never make a record that’s just polemical, I wouldn’t release it if I did. To me, that’s just an abuse of your audience’s good graces.” Springsteen, Variety, 2017

The Jeep commercial

“All are welcome to come meet here — in the middle,” he narrates from a tiny Kansas chapel. “It’s no secret: the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear.” – Jeep commercial, 2021 Super Bowl ad, pulled from airing after disclosure of Springsteen’s earlier arrest for DUI.

The Jeep commercial was destined to fail. He received grief from both sides. It was a notion born from wanting to find common ground, but as a resident of Kansas, I can testify there is little common ground here. The imagery of a small town church was a nonstarter for me. Religion is not a very apt symbol of understanding and morality. And why use a church? America is made up of many religions and cultures. The church, intended or not, in a small Midwestern town is white, conservative and Christian. America is much more than that.

“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry – which is happening as I write – is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.” Springsteen’s statement after canceling a concert in a state that had recently passed legislation about the use of bathroom’s by transgender people. Again, Springsteen received a fair amount of criticism for his views. Just shut up and play your music, many were saying. Others were less diplomatic.

“He’s everything that rock fans want rock stars to be: a hard-working, self-made man of the people whose music provides an escape to a more vivid and better world. Springsteen has also made ungodly amounts of money, of course, but this isn’t why he does it, we tell ourselves—the money is simply a happy byproduct.” Jack Hamilton, Politico article 3/7/21

“His (Springsteen) writing reflects complex patriotism,” said Chris Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College.

The symbol of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign.

“‘Born in the USA,’ which Borick’s students analyze, is an excellent example since if the song is consumed in a superficial manner, it sounds like an anthemic flag waver. However, upon a closer look, it’s obvious that the rousing tune, which helped catapult Springsteen to stadium headliner status, is a scathing indictment of the Vietnam War and the treatment of the veterans who served.” – Ed Condren, Tribune Media Services, 11/2/2020.

Even though his record sales have cooled, and his Western Stars album and film were considered commercial disappointments, Springsteen still sells out concerts. Even his periodic Broadway residencies sell out, but they are pricey. According to an analysis of concert tours, the three most expensive tickets in this entire analysis were tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway: 2017 ($496.16), 2018 ($508.93), and 2019 ($506.39).

Springsteen is big money. His music catalogue generated $15m in sales alone last year, which is part of the reason he sold his master tapes and publishing to Sony, his record label, for $500m.

Springsteen and Obama, the boss and the commander-in-chief. At age 72, Springsteen is in the twilight of his life. Financially secure for his future generations and money to invest in his beliefs, no longer concerned about the metrics of career success, the boss has bigger pursuits. And yes, he will upset some people, but that’s what happens in rock and roll. It’s what happens in life.

Even in his “patriotic” songs, there are shards of reality.

So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

– “Born to Run” lyrics

If you have made it this far, we’re rounding the last curve.

A recent study by Penn State University of Springsteen’s albums found his music to be more authentic and truthful than the trend in popular music. The study measured emotional tone and “cognitive processing,” as well “words that convey genuineness and honesty” by loading all of his lyrics into a program that analyzes language. Of course there were variations in his songs over the years, but found his authenticity peaked with Western Stars.

Bruce Springsteen was never the flavor of the month, his popularity is not measured as a sprint, rather a long distance, cross-country journey. The only authentic, truthfulness that mattered was from his own conscience and soul.

Moonlight, moon bright
Where’s my lucky star tonight
The streets lost in lamp light
Then suddenly inside

– “There Goes My Miracle” lyrics

One thought on “Bruce Springsteen: Falling Out of Favor?

  1. This was worth reading just for the “Bruce Dicksteen” screen cap. Sometimes, almost always, every day people are funnier than the professional comedians that clog Netflix with their specials.

    Liked by 1 person

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